Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Finding Bliss in NorthWord Magazine

I think many people have a writer hidden inside them. I know that I did, and it may surprise some that for years - decades, really - I wrote no more than grocery lists. I suppose I always knew I was a writer and that I had ideas fighting to get out and onto a page, but I just never took the time to put pen to paper (hands to keyboard?) to let the ideas flow. Writing is an incredible release, but I think it can also be a bit daunting because you don't have any idea if what you write is "good" or not. You just write it and then it sits there, your thoughts exposed to the world, and you wonder what to do with it. And just maybe sometimes you write something and you think it is worthy of being shared, but then you wonder where to share it. Where to send this poem, this short story, this outpouring of your heart? Well, if you are like me and have a yearning to see your words printed on paper you send it to NorthWord Magazine, our own little literary journal.

I've written about NorthWord before, and for good reason. It's a lovely little publication, and it is published by a group of volunteers in our own community. Even better it is comprised entirely of submissions from the public, each issue based around a theme to form a cohesive whole. The themes are often broad ones, like "Fire" or "Harmony", broad enough to welcome so many takes on the theme and so many thoughts. I have had the pleasure - the honour, really - of being published in NorthWord twice, and the first time, some months ago, was the first time I have seen my written work in print for decades.

Don't get me wrong, people. I love this blog and I pour myself into it, and I have done so for two years. I am proud of it, and what it has accomplished, and the opportunities it has brought me. However, I will admit that there is nothing quite like seeing your work in printed form, staring up at you from a magazine or a newspaper. I remember seeing my short story entitled "The Legacy" in NorthWord, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. It is a true story, and a deeply personal one about my father, my daughter, and a piano, and when I shared it I knew it was something I would be proud to see in print. When that issue of NorthWord was published, under the theme "Harmony" and guest edited by my dear friend Kiran Malik-Khan, I was not only pleased and proud but a little tearful, too. It was a bit like sending my baby out into the world and having it received with open arms, and it was so very, very gratifying.

When you submit to NorthWord you do so by email, and you submit to the managing editor who is a lovely lady named Jane (and I mean lovely - she reminds me so much of one of my sisters, although I have not told Jane that, my stylish, petite, intellectual, and wonderful sister who so resembles Jane). This is where it gets interesting, though, as every issue of NorthWord has a guest editor, someone who decides which submissions will be included. And what Jane does when she receives the submissions is very intriguing - because you see she removes the name of the author, and then sends it on to the guest editor as an anonymous submission so that every single piece of work is judged on merit alone and not name recognition. This levelling of the playing field delights me, because it means every single submission is treated equally and without regard to who has written it. You could be an award winning novelist or a novice just out of the literary gate, a senior or a high school student - it doesn't matter. What matters are the words.

The last time I submitted to NorthWord, on the theme of "Fire", I did so with trepidation. I submitted one piece, a story about the massive Richardson fire that burned in our boreal forest a couple of years ago, and then, on a whim, I submitted a poem. The poem was not something I intended to submit. It was a last minute thought, a "well, I've never submitted a poem for publication" idea. It was, in fact, the first poem I have written since high school, and I was dubious about the quality. It did not rhyme. It seemed a bit faulty to me, lacking in some sort of poetic flow, but what it had was emotion, and truth. What it had was fire, and so I tacked it on to the email, and sent it. I knew that when it was inevitably rejected no one would know I had written it except the lovely Jane, and so my pathetic (and failed) attempt at poetry would remain hidden from the world. No one could have been more surprised than I to discover an email in their inbox, then, stating that my poem - the one I so doubted - had been selected for publication. And not selected because my name was on it, but rather because the guest editor had thought it worthy of publication. Maybe, just maybe, my poem wasn't as bad as I thought, and so when the most recent issue of NorthWord arrived, themed "Fire", there was my little poem, with my name on it - and again I felt close to tears.

Because of its nature NorthWord is dependent on the public to succeed. It is a free magazine, relying on sponsorships to survive, and it is entirely reliant on members of the public to submit their works for publication. You are not paid for your pieces, but please believe me when I say this: paid or not there is nothing like seeing something you have written in print. Every single time I pass a newspaper rack where I see a copy of Connect Weekly with a cover story I have written I get a little jolt of excitement. Every time I see a copy of YMM Magazine I get a little thrill knowing a story I worked so very hard on is in it. Every time I come across a copy of Big Spirit magazine in a doctor's waiting room I feel like flipping it open to the page where my name is, to quietly say "I did this". This is not some ego trip or some bold narcissism, though - this is simply pride in what I do. This is the visible result of my time spent researching and learning and listening and talking and, finally, writing. I always think it will get old, this feeling I get when I see my words in print, but it never seems to happen. Every single time I hold a copy of those two editions of NorthWord in which I have been published I get this feeling, this pride and this sense of accomplishment. The funny thing is that I am a writer and I don't have words for that feeling, because that feeling, as much as I try to capture it and force it onto this screen, refuses to be caught. But here's the amazing thing - I don't need to describe it to you, because you can feel it too.

NorthWord isn't just for professional writers, or those already published. It is for anyone who wishes to take a try at it, anyone who has ever wanted to experience the feeling of being published. It is for everyone who has ever wanted to share their thoughts with their world, uncertain though they may be about their value, just as I was so uncertain about my poem. It is for the writer inside all of us, and it is for those who wish to see their work judged on merit alone, not their name and whether or not they are known as a writer. It is, in the end, for you.

The theme of the next issue of NorthWord is "Change". The guest editor is a lovely lady named Dawn Booth, one well known as part of  the SNAP Wood Buffalo team, and a person who I admire a great deal for so many reasons. Dawn is awaiting submissions to this issue, and Jane is waiting for your emails, ready to remove your name and send them on to Dawn where she will select those that based on merit alone deserve publication. You will not always be successful - my story on the Richardson fire was rejected, for instance. Rejection is part of the writing game, too, and so even if you are not successful there is no reason to give up. And while rejection can be painful it is the acceptance that is truly amazing. I remember getting the email advising me that my poem had been selected and thinking "wow, really? MY poem?".  That's a moment I will likely never forget.

For me, though, the best moment is when I flip open the cover and find my name. It's in that moment that I find what can only be described as a form of bliss. It is in that moment that I feel this warm glow, knowing that something I have written is now on paper, just like all the magazines and newspapers and books I have read over the course of my life. That blissful feeling is something beyond compare, and beyond description, and the incredible thing is that there is a chance for you to feel it too. All you need to do is take a pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, and let your words flow. All you need is the courage to send an email with your work attached, knowing that if you are rejected no one will know the piece was yours - but knowing that if it is accepted you can attach your name to it if you wish, and see your name in print. It is a brave step, sending something you have written out into the world - and I know that better than anyone. I also know this: the rewards outweigh any risk in the end. That brave step, that feeling of trepidation and anxiety? Trust me - the bliss of seeing your words in print make it worth it. Seeing your work in print washes away the fear. I know, because a few months ago I attached a little poem to an email, expecting to never see it again, and instead I have a copy of it beside me today as I write. Instead my poem is right here in print, and every time I glance down at it I feel that warm little glow again. I look at the story about my father, and my daughter, and I realize that while my father is immortalized in my heart he is also memorialized in print. This is your chance, too. This is your chance to feel what I feel, and all it takes is one simple step. Write your poem, your short story, your thoughts - and then send it to NorthWord. You just never know what will happen, and you will never know how it feels to see your words in print if you don't try. So, this is my encouragement to you - just try. Release the writer hidden inside you. All I can say is that I am so eternally grateful that one day I took that step, because it changed my life forever. And I have never, ever regretted it for a moment.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No Room At The Inn - Fort McMurray SPCA

One of the challenges we face in this community is growth. Now, growth is a very good thing and many communities would fight for our spectacular growth - but with growth comes some really big challenges, including ones that face our non-profit organizations. And our little local SPCA? They are staring down these challenges right now, and facing the reality that there are many more to come. Why?  Because there is no room at the inn, so to speak, not a kennel free and not a spot untaken by some animal in need. And this is a situation very unlikely to change.

I'm a big fan of SPCAs. I suppose that is because I spent a decade working in veterinary clinics, and always have had a love of animals. I suppose it's also because the Intrepid Junior Blogger shares this love, including her recent SPCA adoption of her little ferret River Song (who joins the other two ferrets in our house, now making one big happy rambunctious mischievous mayhem-causing weasel family). I suppose in the end though it is because I see the value of the work they do, because as a society I believe we are judged by our treatment of our most vulnerable - our young, our elderly, our homeless, our disadvantaged, and our creatures. I believe how we treat those groups says a lot about us and who we are, or aspire to be, and so I am a fan of any organization that works to better their life. Our local SPCA falls right into this category, a no-kill shelter that works hard to find the animals in their care good homes and loving owners. Right now though there is an overflow of animals in need, and not enough homes for them. And this is a situation likely to only get worse as our community grows, because with more people comes more pets, and more animals in distress.

This morning I had a chance to chat with Tara Clarke, SPCA Executive Director. I have so much respect for everyone who works at the SPCA, because this is a world I know. I know the ups and downs, the joys and heartbreaks, of working with animals. You see them happy, and in pain. You see them playing, and suffering. You see the best - and the worst - of humanity. I remember my vet clinic days well, and how some were the best days I've ever had, and some were among the very worst, too. My respect for those who work these jobs is immense, because I know the challenges - and the rewards - very well.

Tara and I talked about how the shelter is now at maximum capacity - every kennel full, and a long waiting list of those wanting to surrender their animals. It has been so full, in fact, that this weekend, thanks to the help of three volunteers (let's just call them heroes to save time, shall we?), fifteen dogs were shuttled down to the Edmonton SPCA for adoption there. Although this happens, shelters helping each other as required, the necessity of doing so indicates how serious the issue is, especially when we must transport animals over four hours away - and knowing that as soon as those spaces are empty others will fill them. Tara commented that the vast majority of the animals at the shelter right now are ones picked up by Animal Control and not claimed, something that fills me with sorrow because these poor creatures belonged to someone. Abandoned, forgotten, or simply not loved enough to be looked for when lost they end up at the shelter, hoping for new owners. Hoping for love. Hoping, in fact, for a life, because while the shelter is wonderful it is not what an animal needs to thrive. They can give them food and love and attention and cuddles, but an animal needs a home - which is where we come in.

So, in the short term what can you do to alleviate the challenges the SPCA currently faces? You can foster an animal, giving it a temporary home until a forever-home can be found. You can provide the security and stability that the animal needs to thrive. Or, you can adopt, and provide that forever home. My circumstances are about to change and so the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I intend to adopt a cat in the next few months, bringing home a new furry to join our dog and our ferrets. You too can adopt and provide the love, security, and stability an animal so desperately needs, and I will tell you this: You might think you are doing it for the animal, but in reality you are doing it for you. Our little River Song ferret might have found her forever home but we are the ones who have been blessed by her inquisitive nature, her love of people, her affection, and her desire to groom eyebrows (and she is so gentle and so sweet that no one could deny her, either). There are those who might think adopting an animal is good for the animal, and so it is, but it is far better for the adopter, I think.

You can also donate to the SPCA, cash or needed items, many of which they list on their website (or you can call them to learn what they need most). Even if you cannot adopt you can help support the SPCA and the creatures they care for, and you can thus contribute to the well-being of the animals in need in our community. And you can do something else, too. You can begin to think about how to help in the long term, because this is not a short term problem.

If you spend time at the SPCA then you know that they are often full, no room at the inn. You know that they are already bursting at the seams, and you know that as this community grows so too will the magnitude of the challenges they face. This is just the beginning of the problem, because this one will continue to grow just as this community does, and so the SPCA needs help with the long term solution - and really the only solution is that they will need to grow, too. Their current capacity is already too small for our needs, and this will only become worse and worse over time, and so they need some commitment from our community to ensure they can continue to care for some of our most vulnerable.

Whether it is support from individuals or support from the municipality or support from industry the SPCA desperately needs it, and that is why I ask you to think about how you can help them, whether in the short term or long term. I feel so passionately about this, and not just because of my deep love for animals. It really is more about the fact that these vulnerable creatures need us, and how we treat them, how we care for them, is what defines who we are. It indicates what we value, and what we place importance upon. In the end we are not judged by the car we drive, or the house we own, how much money we make or how many toys are in our garage - we are judged by what we do for others, and especially for those who are the most vulnerable. It is that which judges us, and frankly I hope that when that judgement comes we are found to be in good shape because we have done whatever we could to improve the lives of others - including those of the creatures that share this planet with us.

My thanks to the
Fort McMurray SPCA
for the work they do every single day.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fear and Freedom in Fort McMurray

There are topics I wish I didn't have to write about, because I wish they didn't touch our community. I don't feel it is right to ignore them when they are happening, though, because it is only through frank and open dialogue that we can resolve some issues, and educate on others. It can be troubling to write about them, but it is also honest, and I think the most important thing we can do in this community is to be honest, and not only about what is great about us. We also need to be honest about the problems we encounter, too.

This past week I have been working on a story for Connect Weekly, the local newspaper for which I am so very proud to freelance. The story is about a pair of robberies here, but not about the standard (although equally troubling) storefront stick-ups. No, this story is much more personal in nature, and involves a robber, and women in their cars.

You see there has been two incidents in the last couple of weeks where women have gotten into their cars and an unknown man has gotten into the passenger side door and demanded they drive him to an ATM to withdraw cash. In one instance the victim did, while in the other instance the victim did not, and the assailant stole her car instead. To say this is troubling is to demean it, because this is way past troubling. It's terrifying.

I put the word out on Twitter to ask local women how they felt about these incidents, and the emails poured in. I'll be sharing some of their comments in that article I am writing, but the undercurrent in every single email was fear. It was a sense of betrayal that this is happening in our city, in a place where such crime seems so very unusual. It is a sense of fear I know well, because I've felt it before. I felt it a long time ago when I was a young woman living in Toronto, and when young women were being sexually assaulted - and killed - at an alarming rate. It was a time when young women went missing never to be seen alive again. It was a dark time to live in that part of Ontario, when fear was a constant companion, and when you suddenly became aware of how vulnerable you truly were.

Back in those days I used to ride my bike to work along the Toronto Harbourfront, a beautiful stretch in downtown Toronto full of parks and bike paths. It was about a 45 minute ride, and I enjoyed the glorious freedom. I biked early in the morning, often finding myself alone on the trails, and while I realized my vulnerability I was also a bit reckless about it. It was during that time that I met two Toronto police officers, ones who did not patrol in their cars but rather on horseback. Many mornings we would meet in one of the local parks for a chat and a coffee, and now I realize that they must have seen how vulnerable I was, a young woman out alone on a bicycle during a time when young women like me were disappearing. I realize now they were quite likely keeping track of me, making sure I was okay and where I was supposed to be, as after those days when I decided to take a streetcar instead of my bike they would express concern that I had been absent the day before. One of the things I discussed with those officers was the crime spree involving young women, of course. It was the topic on everyone's lips back then, and I am sure a topic that dominated much of the thoughts of these officers, too.

I recall in particular one day when we were discussing the usual ways to avoid being victimized - being aware of your surroundings, and taking all precautions. Then I asked them what to do if that failed, if you found yourself in a situation where those precautions had failed and it appeared you would be the next victim. I will never forget the veteran officer, with many years on the force, and his reply. He fixed his steely blue eyes on me and said "Theresa, two things. One, these individuals do not want to draw attention - so do exactly that. Yell, scream, ring your bike bell, whatever it takes to draw the attention of others. And two never allow yourself to be moved to a second location. If you allow them to move you then you have effectively ceded all semblance of control in the situation, and you will not regain it. If they suggest or demand that you take them somewhere or that they take you somewhere that is the time to fight like hell. Run, fight, and do whatever it takes".

I will never forget those words because this officer had seen things I could only imagine (and some I would rather not picture). He had years of knowledge behind his words, and that day I formulated a plan should I ever be the victim of any sort of assault. Let me please be clear here, people: I am not advising that this is what you do, as only you can determine what you would do in such a situation. I am only telling you what I would do, and asking you to do this: Have a plan in mind. Think about how you would respond ahead of time, because you have a much better chance of responding in the manner you wish you would if you think about it ahead of time. I know no one likes to consider this possibility, but in this case you must.

So, my plan is this. I will follow all the precautions, including being aware of my surroundings. I will stop treating my car as a mobile office which I am prone to doing, getting in and then making phone calls or scribbling notes or even conducting interviews by phone. I will get into my car, and drive away. I will keep my car doors locked so no one can enter it when I am not there and surprise me (I am shocked by the number of cars I see in parking lots with unlocked doors - this is not some small town of 2500 people where you know all your neighbours any more, folks, and we need to acknowledge this reality). And if by some circumstance, by some twist of fate, a man enters my car, produces a knife, and demands I drive him to an ATM? Well, people, I am outta there.

Is there some risk in doing this? Sure, he could attack me with the knife, but is unlikely to fatally wound me. I would rather give him my car and my purse than freely give him my person. If I can I will hit the panic button on my keys, and let the horn wail (and I would suggest that in the future should you hear a car alarm in a local parking lot please don't assume it's nothing - go and check it out, as it could well be someone in distress). And then I am getting out of that car, and running like hell, screaming as I go. I will not go quietly to an ATM or anywhere else. I will freely give up my car and purse as they are worth far less than my life. I will not let someone quietly take control of the situation - and my life. I will never quietly cede control to anyone.

Again I admonish you that this is not official advice, and nor is it necessarily the right plan for you. Perhaps you would prefer to react in another way, and that is your choice. All I ask is that you think about it in advance, and have a plan at the ready. Practice all the standard precautions, but be aware that even if you follow every single one to the letter you could still fall prey to an assault. In this case it appears the assailant only wants money, but there are others who want something else, and others who can, and will, harm you. Do not go quietly into their clutches without having a plan, and without having thought about how you will react. You see there are times when fear is not as helpful as having plan. There is a time when you only you can save yourself, and this is a clarion call to consider exactly how you would go about doing it. There is a time for fear, and that time seems to be upon us in Fort McMurray. There is also a time for action, and that time has definitely arrived in our community. Be aware, be safe, be thoughtful, and be wise. Watch out for each other, and watch out for yourselves. And don't let fear control you - but perhaps let it guide you into formulating a course of action. You never know. Some day it just might save your life.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Toasting the Community Champions of the RMWB

Last night I had an opportunity, and it was one of my favourite kind. It was the chance to attend an event that was all about recognizing people in our community who work to better it, who do so with little need or desire for recognition, and who do it simply because it is the right thing to do. I am writing about the RMWB Mayor and Council "Toast of Champions", an evening designed to celebrate community.

I attended this event last year and was deeply touched, and this year was no different. This year it was held at MacDonald Island Park (meaning the food was terrific, the service stellar, and the atmosphere perfect). In attendance were our mayor Melissa Blake, all our councillors (with the exception of Phil Meagher who was away due to business arising from his other job in our community), our local MLAs, and dozens of people from within this community. I was honoured to attend as media because I see my role as being that of bringing the highlights of the evening to those who were not there, as well as perhaps shining an even brighter spotlight on the champions of our community.

When I took my seat at the table last night I quietly watched the slide show playing on the screens by the stage. The show was displaying the names of the nineteen nominees, and I was intrigued to see that I did not recognize many of the names. Now, I did not think this bad at all, because one of the things I have noticed is that there are many in this community who do their good work virtually unseen and unheralded. They are the hands and hearts behind so many things of genuine value here, but their efforts are not trumpeted or on display for the world. They go about their community service quietly, unnoticed perhaps except for those who nominated them for an award. They are perhaps the true heroes of this community, the ones who do what they do simply because it is good for the community - and in the end good for them, too.

MC for the evening Russell Thomas said a few words before dinner, and then we ate (enjoying the fabulous food as always, and the good companionship of others). And after we ate Russell called the mayor and council to the stage, and the eight winners of the "Toast Of Champions" were announced.

You all know I am a weepy sort, given to crying when emotionally overwhelmed, and last night was no different I am afraid. The sniffling my table mates heard was not the remnants of a cold or allergies but rather me trying to hold back imminent tears that threatened me at several points. I would like to list all the award recipients and say a few words about each as well.

The first award went to Sonja Burke-Smith, a remarkable woman in every respect. I have never really spoken to Sonja but I certainly have noticed her, as she has a style and flair that is hard to overlook. What she also has is a story of courage, and of healing through art, and what that can mean to community:

The second award went to a young man I found completely remarkable. My own Intrepid Junior Blogger is not much younger, and this is the kind of generational role model I hope she looks up to. I am several years older than he is, and frankly I look up to Cameron Forward:

The next to be recognized was Melissa Gladue, a young woman I have seen personally as she buzzed about in her Santas Anonymous role, bringing Christmas to those who would otherwise have none. A young woman who can make her Phys Ed teacher cry? Remarkable indeed, and it made me cry, too:

That brings us to the next community champion - Lisa Miller. She is an elementary school principal who is well loved, as I found out when I tweeted that she had won this award. Instantly I was flooded with replies from former students now all grown up, expressing their gratitude for how she changed their lives and how they miss her to this day. To have that sort of lifelong influence on students? Well, that is a special individual:

And then there is another school principal, this time a man named Jack Howell. An individual so passionate that he cares about students as people as well as learners, and someone who recognizes the importance of education in a way that raises a school attendance level hovering in the 50th percent to over 90 percent? Nothing short of amazing:

Then we have one of those very unsung heroes, someone so humble that he is unlikely to ever blow his own horn. I don't know about you but I despise picking up my own trash, let alone someone else's - but senior citizen Len Stepanuk does this daily, and his only reward? Beautifying our community one piece of garbage at a time:

Next up we have someone who helps us to show our incredible cultural diversity to the world - but who also helps those new immigrants to our community find their place in it, and begin to treat it as home. I have had the pleasure of meeting Zaid Sulaiman and enjoying some of the Pakistani cultural celebrations he has helped to create in this community, and to know him is a profound honour:

The final recipient last night was someone who couldn't make it to the event, but perhaps that is most indicative of what he does. Elvis Vossler has been quietly creating a community within his apartment complex, making it a safe and warm home for those who reside there, despite the occasional personal risk. He does not do this for recognition or reward, and so him not being there was perhaps symbol of all those who do these things often unseen, unheralded, and unrecognized - but last night he was:

It was lovely to see the eight Champions of our community recognized. The age range was astonishing, from high school student to senior. We saw individuals honoured who have likely not even yet chosen a career to those who are practicing their profession of choice. We saw a diversity in cultural experience and gender, and we saw something else. We saw a common thread, a thread of commitment to community and each other that was amazing to witness. It is the thread I see here often, the one I pick up and tie to myself whenever I feel a bit adrift, because this community is what anchors me. Perhaps award recipient Lisa Miller said it best when she stated "Look out for each other", because it is both as simple and deeply profound as that statement. Look out for each other, and see what happens. This happens, people - community.

Last night I said I cried, and while tears threatened at many points they did not flow until the final recognition of the evening. There is a man who sits on our municipal council of whom I am very fond. He has been kind and encouraging to me since the first day we met, and I suspect he has been the same to every person he has encountered in his life. He is a businessman, a philanthropist, a leader, a councillor - and someone worthy of deep respect, and recognition. He is Dave Kirschner, a man who is now facing a significant health challenge, and doing so with grace, dignity, and courage. I would ask you to read Russell Thomas' blog post about Dave, and about this recognition, because frankly tears are brimming in my eyes even now, making it difficult to type. All I can say is this: community members like Dave are the reason we are who we are today, and his service to our community should never be underestimated. My respect for him is total, my affection deep, and my pride to know him profound.

So, there you have it. A night of joy in our community, of celebration of community heroes. It was a wonderful evening, and I tweeted throughout it merrily, sharing the winners with our region. Today I share them with all of you in the hope that they make you smile, inspire you, or make you want to do one single thing to improve the lives of others. As Mayor Blake said our greatest resource in this region is not under the ground where the bitumen lies but rather above it, where our people dwell. That is the greatest resource - our community, and all those in it.

If you wish to view a recording of the livestreamed
RMWB Toast of Champions
you can do so here :)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Managing My Message at the "Managing the Message" Workshop

On occasion I get offers and requests to do things that are rather intriguing. Sometimes they are meant to benefit others but in the end I always suspect I am the one who has walked away with the most benefit, and so I am always so grateful to have had the opportunity. Another example occurred this week when Russell Thomas invited me to participate in the workshop he was facilitating called "Managing the Message".

"Managing the Message" was a workshop for those who work in non-profit organizations, and it's all about helping those individuals and organizations learn how to deal with the media. Russell asked me if I would help out by taking part in a little mock media scrum, designed to show those individuals who will likely one day face this kind of scenario what a press conference can be like.

Now, Russell recalls my very first press conference in this community, and so do I. It was the one where they announced KISS was coming to town, and I remember it well because I had taken the bold step of inviting myself to the announcement. I know there are many who would dispute it when I say I am shy, but in the beginning of all this I was. I did not know my role, and wasn't even sure if I had one other than as a stay-at-home mom. I wasn't sure about this whole blogging thing, what it meant or where it could go, or where it fit into the fabric of this community. And so it was pretty out of character for me to contact Russell and ask if I could attend the press conference that day. I was delighted when he said yes, and in fact he encouraged me not only that day but every step along the way of this journey, too. He made me feel welcome and like I did have a place, an act of kindness I now try to "pay forward" to other bloggers who make that bold leap into this world of "new media" in Fort McMurray. But I digress...

As I said I recall that first press conference well. I guess I sort of thought as press conferences as dry and dull, but I'd picked a good one for my first. There I was when Claude Giroux, then Executive Director of Events Wood Buffalo appeared in his full Gene Simmons regalia. I wondered if I had press conferences all wrong at that point, although since then I have been to many of the dry and a bit dull variety too(although I've come to love them because they always signal something new and I love new everything - shoes, events, buildings, whatever). I remember the media scrum afterwards, when the media crowd around asking questions, and I couldn't do it. I was far too intimidated, far too unsure of my place. I was terrified, frankly, of asking the wrong question or saying the wrong thing.

Now, after a couple of years, I've been on both sides of that experience, interviewer and interviewee. I've felt the butterflies on both sides of the equation, and I've learned. And so yesterday along with Nolan Haukeness of Rock 97.9 and Jordan and Craig, our new Shaw super-duo, I got to "play media" and be a part of a mock scrum.

Media is important to all organizations, but perhaps even more so for non-profits. They tend to have very small advertising budgets (if any) and thus free press is something that can benefit them in enormous ways. Getting their message out there is huge, because no one can support you if they don't know about you, and so this workshop is, in my opinion, a brilliant idea. Some in non-profits are excellent at handling media while others are uncertain, much like I was at the beginning of all this. Having a situation in which they can experience it while learning what to do (and not to do) is invaluable, and so yesterday the participants at "Managing the Message" got to face a rather aggressive media scrum.

And I will be very honest - that was the most aggressive I've ever seen any local media. In this community the media tends to be quite laidback and easy-going, not "in your face" and difficult. But yesterday we were encouraged to "ramp it up" a bit, and so we did, grilling the participants who had been tasked with holding a mock press conference and then facing us down.

There I stood, arms crossed, and my most cynical side showing. The funny thing is that isn't me at all. I'm likely the easiest interviewer ever. I'm the kind who buys you coffee, chats with you about your kids, makes a few notes, records it on my iPhone, and says "tell me what you want to tell the world and then I will write it in a way that I hope conveys what you feel". I am not the person I was yesterday, the one who asked one participant (after he had given his opening spiel): "That sounds great, now what is it you ACTUALLY DO"? That sort of aggression is completely foreign to me - but for some in the media, perhaps not local but from other places, it is standard.

I did an interview once that was of that nature. By the end of it I was angry, and I felt abused. I felt they had deliberately tried to bait me, goad me, force me to say things I did not wish to say. I handled it well, I think,  but I also determined I would never do that to anyone else. It was perhaps "tough journalism" and it has its place, but it has no place with me, at least not when it comes to non-profits (I'm afraid politics is a different scenario and there I can - and will - play a little hardball).

I think for the participants yesterday it was a tremendous experience. Some were shaking when they faced us, the aggressive media, but they all handled it well and did brilliantly. They faced a trial by fire and they came through unscathed. I felt like I needed to apologize to all of them afterwards and explain I am a really nice person at heart and not some arm-crossing loudmouth jerk, but I hope most of them know that.

Yesterday I suppose I learned something too, about managing my own message. It has taken me time to find my place here, and my role. It has taken some time for the concept of "new media" to be recognized, and it has taken me a great deal of thought to determine what it meant for me to be part of that new media. I no longer fear scrums and I jump in when I think it is necessary, although I still prefer to buy you a coffee and just chat. For me if someone has a passion about something and wants to share it then it is very likely something I will want to write about, because passion is infectious. If someone can make me feel their emotion, help me to understand why they do what they do, then I see my role as helping others to understand it too, becoming a conduit for that passion. I am all about passion and vision and drive, just as I always have been, and that is where my role lies - helping people like non-profits share their passion, vision, and drive with others. After two years I think I have learned to manage my own message, which is to share what is great about this community with the world while also talking about the challenges we face. I have finally found my role and my place, and I am no longer afraid of scrums and press conferences, and I suppose I would no longer characterize myself as even slightly shy. It's been an interesting journey, and yesterday it was truly delightful to share some of that journey with some of the people in this community of whom I am so very fond, the ones who run the non-profits that form the backbone of who we truly are. I loved seeing them learn to manage their messages, to find their role and place and find ways to share their passion and vision and drive with all of us.

I've come a long way since that KISS press conference, people. And I gotta say I am still waiting for a press conference to top that one, where someone appears in an outrageous costume. Until then though I will just keep on keepin' on, doing what I do, and managing my own message about this tremendous place we call home.

My thanks to Russell Thomas
for inviting me to participate at
"Managing the Message",
 and to the participants of the workshop.
I really am a nicer person than I
may have seemed to be yesterday -
and if you give me a chance to buy
you a coffee and share your passion with me
I'll prove it!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Canadian Cancer Society Non-Smoking Week - and A Personal Story of Lung Cancer

While this blog is of a personal nature, my life in Fort McMurray, there are some topics I have written little about. They are intensely personal, held close to me and deep inside my heart. On occasion I mention them but usually only in a passing way to give context to whatever I happen to be writing about. Today, though, I decided to share a more in-depth version of one of those intensely personal stories - and it is about my father.

As some may know this is the Canadian Cancer Society's Non-Smoking Week. Several years ago in March my father died at the age of 81 - from lung cancer caused by smoking. It is not his age at death that troubles me but rather it is the way he died. After a long and successful life full of love and family and joy (and heartbreak, the kind we all experience) he deserved a gentle death, to slip quietly into that unknown outside our door. He did not receive that. His death was very, very different, and it troubles me to this very day.

This morning if you happened to listen to Jerry Neville of Country 93.3 you will have heard he and I discussing the deaths of our fathers, both lost to an insidious disease. I decided to share more of my story with all of you because I want you to understand the impact this kind of death has. I wrote the following story about my father for my personal blog almost two years ago, to commemorate his death, and to explain what that journey was like. It is an ode to him, but it is a reminder of a difficult time when my family patriarch - our leader - left us in the most painful way. He spent the last few years of his life in pain and uncertainty, and his final days on morphine, and yet remained lucid to the very end. He knew he was dying, and that was perhaps the hardest part for me, because this knowledge made me weep.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lives. If you are a smoker this is your chance to stop. This is the chance to change the rest of your life. Do it for yourself, do it for your kids, do it for whatever reason makes sense to you - just do it. I share with you this story, and I hope it helps you understand why I am so passionate about this. I considered sharing with you statistics and numbers, facts and figures - but instead I will take a brave leap and share with you the first man I ever loved - my dad.

I'll Fly Away

John and Theresa, 1973

Five years ago today my father died. That it's been that long seems a bit incomprehensible to me, because while in some ways it feels like forever in some ways it feels much more recent. In some ways my dad's death was easier than my mother's, as he had been ill for some time and we knew it was coming. In some ways it was vastly more difficult. Once again, though, while I could write about his death I'd rather start by writing about his life.

My father had a very similar start to his life as my mother did. He grew up in rural poverty in a fairly large family, and lost his father fairly early, too. His father had been of the old-school of fathers, meaning one you feared and respected, and most of the stories he told of his father involved woodsheds and leather belts. I was always amazed that wherever he learned to be a father he didn't learn it from my grandfather - I don't recall my father ever hitting me, not even once. He was a gentle man, and one you instinctively knew you could trust.

My father came from a farming family, and when he was a young man starting a family that's what he did, too. Farming is not an easy life - it's dirty and hard and, well, menial labour. I imagine this must have been difficult for my dad, because while he also had minimal education he was an incredibly bright man. I suspect farming must have bored him beyond belief some days. I imagine that's why he read as much as he did. Whenever he had free time he had a book in his hand, and from him I gained my love of books, and, I suspect, my ability to write.

As my sisters grew he knew he wanted more for them than the life of a farmer's wife. He knew he had been blessed with daughters with potential, so he did whatever he could to ensure we could all attend university, including eventually leaving rural life altogether to move to the city. I'm sure at times the city seemed restraining to him but he saw the benefits for us, and for him, too. He wanted more for his daughters than he had, and we all did attend university (with varying degrees of success, some of us finishing our academic careers and some, like me, not achieving a degree). He was also a man who did not suffer fools gladly, and as a result nor did his daughters. When the time came for us to marry we all married men of intelligence and ambition (lawyers, accountants, physicists, and engineers).

I see many qualities of my father in my nieces and nephews, and in my daughter. His intelligence shines through in all of them, and perhaps even more brightly in this next generation than my own. I'm actually a bit in awe of the mental power of the younger members of our family tree, and feel like a bit of a dullard in comparison. I know they are all going to achieve great things, and I know how proud he would be of every one of them.

I too resemble him in many ways, including my love of animals. After he retired my father began taking long walks in his neighbourhood, and would stuff his pockets with dog cookies. His route would be lined with the local dogs anxiously awaiting his arrival and the treats they knew would follow. I spent most of my adult life working in veterinary clinics, and have always adored all animals, large and small. In my daughter I see this quality intensified, as she loves animals perhaps even more than I, and is able to connect with them very quickly. A friend in Ireland told me that he thinks she has "the touch", meaning the ability to connect with animals on a level beyond that which most people are able (as evidenced by her ability to touch Irish racehorses than no one else could go near). My father would be so very pleased by that.

My father wasn't a perfect man, of course. He struggled with the family disease of alcoholism when I was in my early teens, but he fought it and won. He had opinions I did not share and still do not agree with. The one thing I always respected, though, was his quick mind and his ability to think things through. I recall that whenever he expressed disappointment with me it was for one reason - because I was "smarter than" whatever I had done to upset him. He expected me to use my brain, to be able to reason and to be able to defend what I thought and did. My mother may have taught me to love, but my father taught me to think.

When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer we were all devastated. The journey of his disease was a long one, and he endured chemotherapy as well as other treatments. When it was discovered that the cancer had metastasized to his brain he went through brain surgery to remove the tumour, and he recovered amazingly well from it. My dad was a fighter, and he never gave up, but as time went on the disease began to win. Lung cancer does not like to lose a battle, and in the end it usually wins.

He went into palliative care at the end of his life. Palliative care is where hope goes to die. It's a difficult experience for everyone, as you all know what you are waiting for, and it's the one time in your life you don't really want the waiting to be over. I imagine it's even harder when you are the one in the bed and are perfectly lucid to the end like my dad was. I spent a week sitting with him in his room, and while he slept most of the time when he was awake he was very much himself. At one point we had almost every family member in his room, laughing and joking and telling stories. It's funny - anywhere else in the hospital they'd kick you out for that. Not there. There they can use all the laughter they can find.

While I was there a spring storm blew in, the kind you find in the prairies that dumps tremendous amounts of snow on the ground and make you feel like winter will last forever. When I came in that morning he looked out the window in his hospital room, looked at me, and said "I wish I could see spring". I knew what he meant, and it broke my heart that he'd never see another spring, or another summer, or another fall. I knew it, and so did he.

I wasn't there when he died. I had to go back to my own city, and thus I learned of his death when my sister called. Although it was inevitable it was still crushing to me that he could be gone. He had been a tremendous support to me throughout my life, and it was inconceivable that he wouldn't be there any more. At the church after his funeral I was speaking to someone when I felt a bit dizzy and reached out my hand for something to steady myself as I feared I might faint. It was only after a few moments that I realized that what I had grabbed was the handrail of my father's coffin. Even then he was there to steady and support me.

We buried him in a local cemetary in a corner close to the trees. During his burial we noticed several jackrabbits hopping around, and I told my daughter how pleased he would be to have animal friends with him. Just recently we buried my husband's grandmother in the same cemetary, and after her service we went to search out my parents' plot. I couldn't quite remember where it was, just the general area, and we began to look. My daughter shouted out that she had found it, and at almost that exact moment a jackrabbit sprang up and hopped away, as she had surprised it when she'd run up to the headstone. There in the snow was a melted spot, just the right size for a rabbit, and you could tell it had been there for awhile. The rabbit had been right beside my father's headstone. Even now the animals he always loved are drawn to him, I guess. How that would make him smile.

My father died five years ago today, and two years ago today we buried my mother beside him. Initially the synchronicity of these dates seemed like some cruel cosmic joke, but as we were leaving the cemetery two years ago my niece, who is as beautiful as she is brilliant, said "Grandma would have wanted to be here today to see grandpa". I was humbled by how profound this statement was. Perhaps if my mother had to join my father then maybe there was no better day than this to do so, even if I thought it was far too soon to lose them both.

While my father was in palliative care my sister brought in a CD player and some music. The music seemed to relax him and he slept better, especially if it was the country music he loved. One of the CDs I played for him over and over again was the soundtrack from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" as it was both gentle and uplifting. One song in particular became forever entwined with my memories of those days, and with memories of my dad. He asked to hear it often while he lay dying, and so I know every word. I am not really a fan of bluegrass but have had this song on my iPod ever since, and when it comes up in the shuffle mode I always find myself taken right back to a time when I sat by his bed as he slept and slowly slipped away from me. I'd like to share the song with you, and, one final time, with him.

This is for you, dad. I love you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Warm Up To winterPLAY 2013

There are events I look forward to every year in this community. Many of them revolve around a little organization called "Events Wood Buffalo", a group I have been proud to work with on more than one occasion. I have volunteered at interPLAY and Canada Rocks, and their annual end-of-summer festival on Labour Day Weekend. Last week I attended the press conference announcing the line-up for this year's winterPLAY, the annual celebration of winter in this northern region, and I am way past excited. I'm sort of into gleeful, really.

There is a stretch in this community when even though the days are getting longer and the nights shorter it seems winter will never end. There seems to be little to be enthused about, temperatures often lower than we would like, and snow piling up around us. It is a time when we need something to be excited about, to get us out of our houses and into our community, spending time with others and enjoying life, cold as the outdoors may be - and that's where winterPLAY comes in.

This year winterPLAY will run from Feb 14-Feb 24, ten days of entertainment and fun and community. There are some highlights I am truly anticipating, like seeing the Irish Descendents (I recently mentioned I am writing a book, and it just *might* be about a little emerald island that changed my life three years ago - to say I have a wee fondness for all things Irish is like saying the Pope is a little bit Catholic). Shane Koyczan, who you may recall from the Olympic opening ceremonies in Vancouver, will be visiting us and joining one of my favourite local magazines, NorthWord, in a celebration of the written word as  he helps them launch  their latest issue "Fire" (an issue in which is published the very first poem I have ever submitted for publication, and the first poem I have written since high school). My pals Toddske and Tito over at YMMPodcast have several things going on with winterPLAY too, like a night of hockey-themed entertainment entitled "Hockey Goons and Puck Bunnies", and featuring locally born but rising musical star Amy Heffernan. There is a comedy night, and a Newfoundland Kitchen Party, and the Shootout on the Snye, and a family ski day and...well, it goes on and on. There is even a night of burlesque I plan to attend as I missed it last year due to another commitment (and when invited to it by a friend on Twitter I cleverly replied I was "tied up" for the evening, which I thought was rather funny but apparently raised a few eyebrows due to the nature of burlesque - I can't help it, people, like Popeye I yam what I yam).

The great thing about winterPLAY is that there is something for everyone, no matter what you are interested in. It's pretty comprehensive, and it brings some amazing entertainment right here to us in Fort McMurray. The other great thing about it is the Events Wood Buffalo team, people I have worked alongside more than once and of whom I have become ridiculously fond as a result. They work their butts off to pull events like this together, and they need just one thing to make it a success - you.

At the end of this post is a link to the new winterPLAY website, where you can get all the details. There are also a couple of videos that get me all quivery with excitement. And in the end all I can say is that this year from Valentine's Day until February 24th you will find me wherever the winterPLAY events are, since I plan to hit as many as humanly possible. The days are short, the nights are long, and some days it seems winter will just not end - so instead of dreading it let's celebrate it with a festival right here in Wood Buffalo, and put some warmth back into those cold days.

You can find the winterPLAY 2013 events here

Monday, January 21, 2013

Community Image Summit 3.0 - The Opportunity for Community

As some of you know I have a few things I really, really like to talk about. One is shoes, of course, my obsession with those little beauties coming to be known more widely than I had ever anticipated. Shoes, though, are a mere distraction from what I truly like to discuss - and what I truly like to discuss is community, and in particular this one of which I am so very proud to be a part. Last week I had the opportunity to discuss community at an annual event at Keyano College known as the Community Image Summit - and once again this year the summit did not disappoint, and afforded many people within this region the chance to share their thoughts and ideas, too.

As the third annual summit this one was called "CIS 3.0", and was once again directed at communication professionals and anyone who considers themselves a stakeholder in this region. I was there as both media and community advocate (I often wear so many hats I think I need more heads, really), and it was a pleasure to both participate in and witness the summit, because from this rich tapestry of our community some very interesting things arise.

Ken Chapman of the Oil Sands Developers Group (and one of my favourite people as he always provokes me to think) facilitated the summit in his usual entertaining and quixotic fashion. Ken is very good at eliciting responses from people, and he is excellent at helping large groups develop a flow of communication. He challenged us right off the top to finish a statement that would guide us for the rest of the summit. He asked us to complete the statement "Wood Buffalo is...".

Now, that is a fascinating question because this place is different things to different people. What he was seeking, though, was commonalities, common themes derived from our responses. I quickly wrote down my responses, not ones I thought about but initial gut level responses. I came up with things like:

Wood Buffalo is growth.
Wood Buffalo is culturally diverse.
Wood Buffalo is opportunity and potential.

After we had all written down our answers the process to whittle them down began, and we began to see themes emerging, as our answers were not so different after all. In the end four common themes were identified: family, diversity, economy, and environment. And through the exchanges at our tables we began to riff further on these themes, what they meant to us and their relevance to our experience. We began to dig just a little bit deeper and delve into what each of these concepts meant in our relation to the world, and how we could tell the world about us using the methods at our disposal to do so. And that is where Ken challenged us even further, asking us to take to social media to spread the word about Wood Buffalo.

Now, not everyone is fluent in social media. There are those who find it intimidating, the world of Twitter and such. I of course have embraced it with the typical enthusiasm I give to everything I enjoy (which in my case means obsessively, thoroughly, and ceaselessly). The reality is that social media is an opportunity of the most unique kind, a chance for us all to be "citizen journalists" and share our lives and experiences with others. The potential reach of social media is vast, with an ability to connect millions of people within minutes, and the chance to spread common themes and ideas far beyond the limitations of our borders. And so Ken asked us all to take to Twitter and begin broadcasting our thoughts on the four themes to the world, perhaps in a slightly calculated fashion, to maximize the impact of our message. The message? That we are a community of diverse, family-oriented people who enjoy our strong economy and natural environment. That we are not just oil sands, but so much more. That we embrace and have pride in the industry we have here because it is what gives us the opportunities we need to succeed. That we believe we are a wonderful place, and that we have much to share with the world.

Now, I suspect some who read this blog don't use Twitter, and that's ok. You still have the chance to spread the word about Fort McMurray, because with or without social media you are connected to others. Every time you speak about this place you are sending a message about who we are and what we do. You are engaging in spreading the word about our community, and our home. It is your choice as to what message you choose to impart, but I hope that whatever you say you balance the bad with the good, and the myth with the reality. You see there is no one single story of life here, no one definitive reality but rather a tapestry of tens of thousands. And your story, whatever it is, adds to that tapestry, and deserves to be told, too.

So, the Community Image Summit 3.0? Not only a great time to meet new people and connect with those I know well but a chance to exchange some ideas and thoughts, and to develop a method for getting our message out into the world. CIS 3.0 was an opportunity to not only discuss community but to be community - and for me that is always an incredible thing.

My sincere thanks to
Keyano College
for inviting me to attend the
Community Image Summit 3.0 :)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

That'll Never Happen in Fort McMurray

This past week I was discussing my thoughts with someone regarding the need in Fort McMurray for a full-service tertiary care hospital, lessening our reliance on medevac services and hospitals in other cities. When I finished saying that I believed we should advocate for and receive that hospital their reply was "well, that'll never happen". And if you want to see fire flash in my eyes and steam come out of my ears those would be the exact right words to say to me, because that defeatist attitude is what has gotten us to where we are today, struggling with inadequate infrastructure and services. That attitude has been what has kept us from growing in the way we need, with all the supports required. That attitude hurts us, people, and it has to change.

I would not call myself an optimist, and nor am I a pessimist. I believe I am a realist, so let's look realistically at some facts:

1) we have an extremely high birth rate, coupled with a high rate of migration into our community
2) we are poised to become Alberta's third largest city (region, municipality, whatever you call it, we will have the population)
3) we are expected to continue to grow at an astonishing rate
4) we are the economic driver of this province - and this nation
5) we are a very young community with an average age of 31

When I questioned the person with the "that'll never happen" response they talked about the difficulties of building a hospital here, attracting specialists and nurses. I was a bit bemused as hospitals in other communities don't just spring up from the ground either, but are created, forged by community will and design. The problem with the "that'll never happen" attitude is that going in with that mindset almost guarantees that it will never happen - in fact it pretty much guarantees you won't even try to achieve anything that seems even slightly difficult. In life, though, it is the difficult things that often bring the most reward, and the most benefit.

So let's also talk realistically about some things that'll never happen in Fort McMurray, shall we?

1) airport expansion with international capabilites - the "never happen" completion date is 2014
2) city centre redevelopment, including arena and new civic centre - the "never happen" is currently in progress
3) expansion at MacDonald Island Park, including stadium and non-profit hub - the "never happen" completion date is 2015
4) twinning of Highway 63 - the "never happen" completion date is fall of 2016

I could keep on going, but it seems a whole lot of "that'll never happen" are happening right here in Fort McMurray. And why are they happening? Because we believe we can make it happen, and so we do. How easy it would be to simply say "give up, because it ain't gonna happen" - and then that self-fulfilling prophecy comes true because we don't even try. Just like hospitals recreation centres, arenas, airport terminals, and highways don't just spring up fully formed - they come about because we decide we want and need them, and then we just make it happen.

I suppose there is one thing that I can say with some certainty will never happen. Me, giving up on this community, this region, and all of you? Well, about that, folks. That'll never happen. Guaranteed.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Road Closed - Highway 63 and Fort McMurray

Today I was going to blog about the Community Image Summit 3.0 at Keyano College last week, but I've decided to defer that particular topic to Monday. I need more time to mull over some of the thoughts that came from that summit, but I also feel the need to pre-empt it to talk about something that had some very direct community impact in the last two days - the closure of highways in the north.

This isn't the first time I have lived in the north. Prior to moving here I lived in the very small town of Red Lake Ontario, a gold mining community where the highway truly ends, and there really is only one road out of town (and only one stoplight, too). In that part of northwestern Ontario bad weather is common, as are forest fires, and the tiny highway leading into the area was subject to all those things. This community, though, was far tinier than ours, with only a small airport. One grocery store, one pharmacy, one fast food joint, one place to get pet food - and it was highly, highly reliant on that one road. When closures affected that road - and they did, often, whether due to inclement weather or forest fire - it was a pretty sobering experience as you realized your isolation from the world. It was a reminder that we lived in the north, and had chosen to do so, and that along with that choice came some consequences, just as those who choose to live in other places deal with the risk of earthquake, or tornado. We were subject to the whims and mercies of mother nature - and this past week, Fort McMurray, we were reminded that we too live in the north, and are subject to those same whims and mercies.

It was a bad week for travel in the region, no doubt. Wednesday I was to travel to Lac La Biche to see my young friend and hero Nathaniel Crossley receive his QE II Diamond Jubilee Medal, but due to poor road conditions and an RCMP advisory cautioning against travel his parents and I decided not to go. We all have children to think about, and a medal, while so very special, was not good enough reason to risk any of our lives, including those precious ones of Nathaniel and his brother. And so we cancelled our plans, and stayed put. On Friday the Intrepid Junior Blogger was to travel to Edmonton for a provincial robotics competition, one she and every student on the robotics team in her school was anticipating with excitement. They have worked so hard, staying after school three nights a week for over a month to prepare - and of course the decision to not go was made due to bad weather and poor roads. And while she and her team-mates were deeply disappointed there is no doubt that the correct decision was made, as no robotics trophy is worth those precious young lives, either.

The decision made to not send the robotics team was made even before the RCMP, assessing the road conditions, decided to close Highway 63. This was an unusual move, one very rare in my experience. I've lived here over a decade and cannot recall more than a very few times when the road was closed, and not pro-actively. Road closures due to collisions - and often fatalities - are far more common here, but to close the road simply because the weather was bad and the road surface poor for travel? Virtually unheard of. And while there are those who complained and whined about this road closure, about how long it went on and how it stranded us, I want to say this, and be very clear about it:

Thank you to the RCMP and Alberta transportation for
making the brave and necessary decision to preserve our safety -
and very likely save lives.

If you think the decision to close highways is made lightly you are wrong. The government is not blind to the economic impacts, or the impact on those of us who rely on the highway. They know there will be cries from those who think it is the wrong decision, who believe they could traverse the highway safely despite road condition the RCMP describe as "treacherous". They know it will have effects on everyone trying to get into and out of the region. And that is exactly why the decision to close highways should be applauded, because it is brave to do it knowing there will be a backlash.

Look, people. Less than one year ago we sat here in this community the night after a devastating crash that claimed seven lives, destroyed several families, and impacted thousands of others. We raised one holy hell of a cry to the government, demanding they make our highways safe. We demanded they twin Highway 63, we demanded more police presence to catch those who drive unsafely, we demanded they do everything they could to save lives - and this past week they did. They looked at roads where dozens of collisions were occurring, so many and in such hazardous conditions that even tow trucks were not going to pull them out of the ditch. They assessed the potential for serious injury, or death. And then the closed the highway, erecting road blocks, and they made a tough decision.

Weather is an unpredictable beast. While it might be below freezing here with snow drifting down just two hundred kms away or so it may be considerably warmer, with rain hitting the pavement instead, freezing as it lands. Two years ago Environment Canada created the "flash freeze warning" - and this week was the first time they have ever issued it in Alberta. The roads leading into and out of this place were being described as treacherous and hazardous, and by professional drivers who travel these roadways on a regular basis. The RCMP were advising against travel, and found themselves responding to dozens of collisions (and frankly that we escaped without another fatality is a miracle I think). There needed to be a decision made to protect the lives of those who live in this region - and they made it, despite knowing it would not please everyone. They made it knowing that even if they issued a dozen travel advisories imploring people to not travel, pleading with them to stay off roads that could claim more lives, some would ignore the advisories and travel anyhow, putting their own lives in danger, and by doing so risk the lives of emergency responders, too. There are those who will always see an advisory of that sort as a mere "suggestion" against travel, and not what it is - a warning that says "ignore this and you risk lives, and not just your own".

In the very end though it all boils down to this: We can't complain about getting a highway twinned and advocate for highway safety and then complain about it being closed for safety. We have made a very effective case for twinning our highway, and we have been heard, with a commitment being made to do so by 2016. We have made a very strong case for protecting lives on that highway, demanding that the government step up to the plate and keep us safe, even if it means keeping us safe from ourselves by ticketing us for bad driving behaviour. We have insisted on all those measures to ensure our safety - and just this past week we felt a bit of a sting when they protected us once again by closing a highway to ensure that more people did not die. Can you imagine the hue and cry had they left the highway open and more people died needlessly? Can you imagine the regret and recrimination? 

People, we live in the north. That is the reality. If you doubt me look out your window at the snow and cold temperatures. We are subjected to that reality, and on occasion that means we will feel a bit isolated, with one highway closed and deemed as too hazardous to travel, and another not closed but with a strong advisory against using it. It is funny though as we are not so isolated here, with lots to entertain us, more than one grocery store and one pharmacy and one fast food joint. Yes, if the closure went on there would be some pain felt, but that is also the reality of living in the north. If you choose to live here - and it is a choice - then on occasion you may feel the downside of that decision, although a road closure to me seems a pretty tepid downside compared to the ones those who choose to live other places face. 

The headlines this weekend will read "highway closure affects thousands". What they won't say is "treacherous road claims lives" or "more deaths on Highway 63". Perhaps the best comment on this is one I steal from a friend who said "Better to hold people in Fort McMurray than in the morgue in Grassland, Lac La Biche, or Edmonton". Better to be inconvenienced than in mourning, my friends. Better to wake up to headlines that talk about the impact of a road closure than one that talks about the impact of the deaths of more people. Better to lose a few hours - even days - from our economy and lives than to lose seven more people who die on the side of a highway. Better to preserve lives than to risk them. In the final analysis I would say

better this:

Photo credit to CTV Edmonton

than this:

Photo credit to Edmonton Journal

Friday, January 18, 2013

It'll Only Be Good If We Makes It Good - Keyano Global Address in Fort McMurray

Yesterday was one of those days in Fort McMurray, exciting and exhausting and exhilarating all at once. Today I feel a bit like I was hit by a large cast-iron frying pan as I hit the ground running at 5:15 am yesterday and didn't stop until much, much later. There was a press conference, and then another press conference, and then a summit, and then a global address. In my typical quixotic fashion I've decided to mix it up and start recounting my day with the last event of the day, and so today I bring to you the Keyano Global Address, an event that saw Seamus O'Regan of CTV fame, Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea, and our own Mayor Melissa Blake share the stage at Keyano Theatre. Why were they there? To discuss image, perception, and pride.

I had just come from a day where I thought about this topic a great deal. The Community Image Summit 3.0 had challenged us to change the dialogue about this region (and that is a topic I will blog about tomorrow). I had attended two press conferences, one showcasing the upcoming winterPLAY from Events Wood Buffalo, and one promoting the summer fundraiser for the Family Crisis Society. As often happens all these events were very fresh in my mind when I took my seat at Keyano Theatre, and so I was quite interested to hear what these three individuals had to say.

Seamus and Alan are both originally from Newfoundland, of course, a place that has had it's share of bad press over the years (from stories about unemployment to overfishing to the seal hunt). They too have had to battle an image problem, a perception of their home that they did not believe truly reflected who they are, and this is a war we continue to fight here in Fort McMurray. Seamus and Alan brought a fresh new perspective to the dialogue, though, because they are coming from a place that has successfully changed the image they once had. They hail from a place which they love and protect, one that they feel very passionately about - and of course there are so many in this region who care passionately about this place, too. There are so many who are staunch defenders of Fort McMurray, who try to spread the message about who we really are.

Seamus and Alan know what all this is like. They have travelled the world in their respective careers, and both commented how strange it feels to be called an "ambassador" for the place they call home. I know too how that is, as often we do not take that name ourselves but find others place it upon us. It is strange to think of yourself as an "ambassador", and yet it is true as each and every one of us who talks about this place to others is an ambassador of sorts.

There were so many things said last night that stuck with me. Alan commented on how when you come from a place with a negative image you aren't starting at zero, but less than zero, and how that just increases the challenges. He and Seamus talked about not apologizing for who you are and what you do (and for us in this region we have the double whammy of the natural Canadian tendency to apologize for everything and the charges levelled against us). The one thing that truly stuck with me, though, was what Alan said his father told him when he was growing up. Parents often have mantras they repeat, things we pick up as children and never let go even when we are adults. For Alan's dad it was "it will only be good if we makes it good" (and that "s" is not accidental as it's the wonderful and charming Newfoundland dialect one comes to know and love here). The meaning is obvious. And the relevance to us, and our life here, is profound.

It will only be good if we makes it good, people. That goes for everything from our personal lives to the industry to the community. Making it good isn't dependent on anyone else - it depends on me, and you. We each need to take the responsibility to make it good. And then, when we know we are doing our best to "makes it good" we stop apologizing, because we know we are doing our best, and that our best is, in fact, pretty damn good. And we decide to just be who we are.

After the talk between Mayor Blake and our guests (and our mayor did a wonderful job representing us, as she always does) there was a brief media scrum. During that scrum I asked this (and was delighted when Seamus called it a great question, which pretty much made this little blogger's entire week): "We live in a place that is subject to intense scrutiny from national and international media. What is the most important thing we can do when we feel the eyes of the world are on us"?

Alan answered and said "Just be yourselves, and don't try to be anything other than that". Seamus agreed, and they both spoke to the importance  of simply being proud of our home, and sharing our passion for it. And I could not agree more, and so this global address resonated deeply with me because I felt like I had spent the evening with some very like-minded individuals.

There were other terrific moments, like the shout-out Alan gave to Saskatoon, the place I grew up in, calling it one of his favourite cities in the country (and if you were at Keyano Theatre it was indeed I who cheered that statement, because I have pride and passion about that little prairie city, too). There were some great laughs (a new motto for the city? "We're not faking it!"). It was a pretty incredible experience, actually, and thoughts from last night continue to resonate with me today as I mull over various thoughts and ideas. 

The evening ended on an amazing note when I had the opportunity to join some folks from Keyano College, some other attendees, Alan, and Seamus for a drink at a local lounge. The opportunity to sit and chat with someone like Seamus was incredible for me, and yet another example of all the slightly unbelievable things that happen to me in this community. It was a chance to share thoughts and ideas and stories, and drop the roles of "ambassador" and simply be people. And it was pretty damn spectacular, too.

There are many times when I am called an ambassador, and I have always found myself a bit uncomfortable with it. I was glad to know I am not alone, and while I find the title a bit squirm-inducing on occasion I am proudly from Fort McMurray, and not sorry to be an ambassador for it should people choose to see me that way. We are, in the end, all ambassadors for this place we call home, and so the stories we share and the things we tell others impact us all, whether they are good ones or bad ones, or simply the truth, the good and the bad all together. I want to thank Keyano College for organizing the Global Address, and I would deem this one of the very best events of this kind I have ever attended as it was both thought-provoking and relevant. And it brought two pretty phenomenal people to our community, and I want to thank Alan Doyle and Seamus O'Regan for coming to visit us and engaging in a little diplomatic ambassadorial exchange. I also want to thank all of you, Fort McMurray. You are the reason I do what I do, and you are the reason I am so proud to call this home. I am proud of all of us, because it will only be good if we makes it good - and I truly believe that is what we are doing every single day in this little place surrounded by boreal forest and under the dancing northern lights. We are making it good to be right here, in Fort McMurray. And that is something we never, ever have to be sorry for.

My deep and sincere thanks to
Keyano College
for the invitation to attend the Global Address
and for all the do for this community,
to Mayor Blake 
for being a mayor of whom I am so proud,
and to 
Seamus O'Regan and Alan Doyle
for coming to visit and sharing their passion and pride with us.